The Tip of the Iceberg

Michael Stivers - Brazil


April 25, 2011

I have about a week left in Brazil. But instead of talking about all the feelings pounding on my chest, demanding that they be shot up my esophagus, out from my mouth and conveyed, I will talk about one. I came to Brazil wanting to teach. Whatever I would be doing in this country I knew I wanted to be in front of children, providing a skill, a piece of inspiration, a new cultural perspective. However, I never became a teacher here. I’ll backtrack a little.

When I first encountered trouble I thought I needed to be closer with the kids. That as a white middle class gringo from upstate New York I wasn’t connecting in a neighborhood that’s as close as it gets to “favela” and almost one hundred percent Afro Brazilian. So I waited.

Then I thought that it was the organization that was preventing me from achieving what I desired. I should have known a few things when I started working at an NGO that translates to “large mess.”  Expecting defined classes and adequate classroom material was maybe a little too hopeful. Shortly after, the community center where I had been placed (Bagunçaço) landed an $80,000 donation and hired a team of about twelve that included a pedagogy expert, social worker, band instructor, and many other impressive pieces that should have made the gears spin smoothly. This however did not bring a dramatic change in the structure of my classes, the behavior of the children or really anything about the way I was living my life. There would be weeks where I could not manage to organize an English class. Weeks.

When I did manage to get a group of ten or so kids together in a classroom, it was chaos, chaos as pure as you will find it on this green Earth. I don’t know if I will ever forget one of the first scheduled English classes. I spent about an hour breaking up fights. I spoke not one syllable of English, wrote not one word on the poster board taped to the wall. I simply stopped kids from hitting each other in the face.

At this point it had to be the kids. Who else did I have to blame? I was frequently cursed out, told I was a gringo that knew nothing, and was flat out disrespected between the hours of 2 and 6 pm Monday through Friday. I even had the experience of getting struck between the eyes (supposedly unintentionally) with a rock thrown through an iron gate. I hope that story spells out an ironic David and Goliath for you just as clearly as it did for me.

I just want to announce quickly that I don’t want sympathy. I made the decision to be here and not once during these months did I even consider that I had made a mistake in embarking on this journey. Even while I was having these limit pushing experiences, I knew I was learning. Also, I had great days. These days usually came from the forming of relationships with students, strides made in Portuguese, or great relations with the professors at the center, who although still through my American scope seemed incredibly disorganized, were helpful, hysterical and warm. Yet still, in terms of teaching I still felt borderline useless. Slowly and apathetically, I became content with the idea that I would learn a lot, have interesting and educational experiences and leave nothing behind.

I couldn’t exactly tell you when things started to change. I suppose it was a collection of experiences manifesting inside of me that was just waiting to be filled up, tipped over and spilled out through my heart and mind…although one day sticks out pretty well.

I was sitting outside of the center with Joselito, my host father and Baguncaco founder. It was an hour or so before activities were set to commence when two kids appeared. These were tough kids. We’re talking running through the center, taking off their shirts mid-activity, and exhibiting the mouth of a sailor yet with a face that still showed the innocence that a thirteen year old deserves. Of course it was I who was always required to run and retrieve them, demand they put on their shirts and think about how to scold in Portuguese. I can’t recall how the conversation started but I began to joke with them that they didn’t like me and I was ok with that. Almost in unison they responded that they in fact did. I was shocked. There was no math on that planet that could explain this equation. I continued to play around and remark that they have no reason to like me, I’m always yelling at them. The same kid who had thrown that rock at the face that shielded my still fragile character told me “yeah but it’s for our own good.”

After this the rewards started piling up. I had students apologize for the tantrum they threw the previous day, adolescents show a true will to acquire my approval, my friendship. I noticed kids became animated and eager to be active, to seek out a role. And I saw myself change as well. I began to feel more at home, as if my life was normalizing itself again.

Now throughout this whole stabilizing period I still was not giving English classes. Once and a while I offered a small lesson or help on homework but my original job offer of English professor had yet to be fulfilled. It took me about three or four months to learn it but slowly I began to comprehend that English classes were never possible here.

I was attending to boys whose fathers had been murdered by the police, whose families were almost nonexistent, who walked the drug laden, prostitution filled streets at any hour of their desire. I had met mothers with only fifteen years of age bring their children to the center unknowing that they still had a good chunk of childhood left in them. It wasn’t until a couple months after I met Pel, one of the toughest boys in Baguncaco that I discovered his situation; Three brothers murdered through their involvement in the drug trade, living with this mother and two younger siblings. English classes were never possible here.

So it all started to make sense to me in an odd only-time-would-have-resolved-this sort of way. These boys can take off their shirts any hour they like on the street so why would they do any different when they’re with me? They sprint barefoot from street to street searching for a pick up game of soccer or a free snack so why should I expect them to sit in a chair for forty-five minutes and learn a language that they don’t value? They repeat what they hear from the older kids, the radio, the fighting parents so is it even reasonable to ask them to talk to me with respect and dignity?

For a sizable amount of my stay in Brazil, I thought I wouldn’t really make a sustainable difference. I was upset that I couldn’t leave something behind in my place. I would return to the States having engaged in an unfair cultural exchange. Getting a lot and giving next to nothing. This whole time, I was actually providing something of value to these children. It just wasn’t in the form of verb conjugations or grammatical structure like I had imagined it. It was the idea that actions have consequences, people have feelings, and that someone actually has time in their day and space in their heart for these children. Children that no matter how surrounded they may be by crime, death, and tragedy, they still hold strong remnants of the fragile beings they were meant to be.

I will let Joselito sum things up because after twenty years with Baguncaco, I think he does it just a tad better than I.

“These kids don’t have the conditions in their life to learn what you want to teach them. On your last day here one kid might walk up to you and ask you your name in English. But then he’ll give you a hug. And that’s the real difference you’ll have made. Creating some love in their life. This is hard for people. We work and expect to see results and sometimes you do, but most of the time it’s something you can’t see. The tip of the iceberg. That’s what we as educators get to see, just the tip of the iceberg.”

In my last month here I began structured English and Leadership classes. At least two hours a day. Still I don’t think I ever became a teacher here. I became an educator. I believe I did provide skills, inspiration, and a cultural perspective. I just didn’t do any of it as I had planned. And I’m ok with that.

Michael Stivers